If transgender people have a “superpower” it is our remarkable ability to stand for anything: living, breathing “floating signifiers.” Our meaning d’jour is, for some on Fleet Street, “a professionally offended, Left wing lobby group” that is now the latest “post-Leveson” threat to free speech and a free press. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of things—fleeting as these meanings are, such that we can even speak of stable oppositions—Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill had accused trans people of dividing and distracting the Left from its “important” goals and its “true” cause.
If this seems exasperating and contradictory, you ain’t seen nothing yet, as they say.
But for now, it is enough to deal with these two absurdities one at a time and bring a bit of light to a decidedly un-illuminating heat.
Free Speech: From Posturing to Substance
Toby Young and all the other vacuous, fly-by-night defenders of “free speech” filch lovely rhetoric that whistle stops past all manner of liberal democratic tropes while failing to specify the connection between, say, hate speech and liberty. They use language meant to bypass both the intellect and one’s reason, while subtly refusing any attempt at being substantive. To do so would be to pull back the curtain at Oz and reveal the great democratic wizard to be nothing more than a petty would-be tyrant in disguise. In his entire blog post, Young does not mention the content of Burchill’s article once, instead gesturing to the void indirectly by casting trans people as some monolithic left lobby opposed to free speech.
He has archived Burchill’s piece for the world to see, so readers can judge for themselves, but it is a curious choice—to say the very least—to use an article that was almost entirely vapid schoolyard bullying and name-calling as some kind of heroic exemplar of courageous speech. He takes this to a laughable pinnacle by comparing Burchill’s screed to The Observer’s opposition to Prime Minister Anthony Eden and his 1956 invasion of the Suez Canal, now widely regarded by historians as the last gasp of the British Empire. Clearly these were equal acts of great courage.
Yet, if one refuses Young’s attempts to cut their intellectual brake lines, it’s plain to see that Burchill’s article was no Watergate, no “Pentagon Papers.” To compare Burchill’s privileged tantrum to great acts of journalism is offensive to the profession (and if one wants to read incisive feminist journalism, I cannot recommend Ms. Magazine more strongly—their investigations into the plague of rape in the US Military, and the anti-abortion lobby’s links to terrorism are, alone, reminders of what truly courageous pens might write).
Instead of asking substantive questions about Burchill’s writing, Young thoughtlessly defends it without any regard for its content, nor any attempt to engage with it meaningfully. This is profoundly anti-democratic. We do not, in a truly free society, throw our hands up in childlike awe and say “Oooh, there are so many ideas out there, that’s nice!”—ideally, we engage with them, we debate, and we argue; we consider them on their merits, weigh them, and are fully allowed to find them woefully wanting.
That is precisely what trans women, our loved ones, and allies did with Julie Burchill’s codswollop. And it is here that we come to what else is so utterly pernicious about Young’s unthinking editorialising: he has completely misrepresented and lied about the motivations of Burchill’s critics. Many of us, myself included, did not want the Observer article taken down. What we wanted was to be heard, and to counter the spreading of hate. Some of us wanted Burchill to apologise, and some wanted the piece taken down, yes, but I’d not say the latter was a widespread, agreed-upon, much promoted goal. It is certainly fair to say that few of us are mourning the piece’s loss. It is no Vindication of the Rights of Woman (quite the opposite, in fact), nor is it Candide. It was gutter trash of the lowest order, and even if you don’t give a toss about transphobia, one would have to concede it was tenth-rate writing. Its deletion from the Observer’s website is no loss to anyone.
And yet, while Mr. Young may think himself a dutiful democrat for preserving and republishing the piece, he might be surprised that he was beaten to the punch by many of the same trans activists he was attacking. Most of us had a problem with the article being used as “link bait” for the Observer, driving up their ad costs with every click. This shock and awe tactic is, tragically, a commonplace in online news websites. Many of us, who wanted to preserve the public record of Burchill’s hate, have reposted the piece elsewhere—both to ensure that it was not flushed down the memory hole, and to ensure that people could read and judge for themselves, while denying The Observer profit-from-hate. If Mr. Young had bothered to talk to any of those faceless and nameless activists he decries, he might have seen that our motivation was not to punish “political incorrectness” but to add to the discourse, with the urgency that hate speech always demands.
That is democracy.
It is also worth remembering that if one wishes to defend free speech, one must know what they are defending and why. More of those nattering specifics that tend to deflate gassy rhetoric, yes.
Speech does something. That is why it’s so powerful, cherished, and defended as a fundamental right. But like any right, it can be abused, used to the detriment of others, and cause great harm. Citizenship, by contrast, is the craft of using rights and liberties to further the cause of freedom. Burchill’s piece, on the other hand, was both puerile and dangerous in the most vulgar way. Words like hers are hurled along with glass bottles at trans women fleeing for their lives from angry, hateful cisgender men. Ideas like hers fuel housing discrimination, see trans people excommunicated from their families, usher us with sibilant urgings to suicide, and are deployed by people who need to justify violence against trans people.
Burchill’s words and ideas, to the extent they have any substance at all, are simply the anima of hatred; hatred that revokes trans women’s rights. It sees our free speech muzzled, lest we be attacked for naming our experience and concerns. It sees our right to life snuffed out and declared conditional—less important than a privileged journalist’s right to lose her intellectual lunch in a national newspaper. It sees our right to free movement drastically curtailed, our right to healthcare passively but firmly denied.
None of this has a whit to do with “being offended.” It has everything to do with survival.
Our speaking up—as feminists, LGBTQ activists, and concerned citizens—was an attempt to ensure that Burchill’s article, which ended with an unambiguous threat and was essentially one long piece telling us to “shut up” (where was Mr. Young then?), did not have its intended silencing effect. If Mr. Young seeks enemies of free speech, instead of rudely stereotyping trans women he might well simply look in the mirror.
Solidarity and the “Real Issues”
Only a briefer note is necessary to deal with the odious counterpart to Young’s Left-baiting, and that is Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill’s snide suggestion that we are a single issue group devoted to a myopic cause at the expense of wider solidarity. Never mind that this exact argument has been used against feminists since the 19th Century and is a common silencing tactic.
I am proud to work for an organisation that is devoted to precisely the kind of solidarity that Burchill so disingenuously “defended.” The Sylvia Rivera Law Project is concerned with those wider economic issues that structurally oppress so many in our society—the austerity and cuts crusades now being trumpeted from Whitehall to Washington. We’ve been on the front lines trying to fight the manifestations of that malignancy as they particularly affect low income trans people of colour, and do so in solidarity with organisations and nonprofits serving different communities. Our goal is to not only provide our clients with basic legal needs and representation, but also to help them join activist communities of their fellows, educating them about often opaque and esoteric rights they may have (in the social services system, for instance), and enjoining them to take part in discourse, education, protests, and the fight for justice.
This is not done through an artificial focus on trans issues, as if they can they be neatly and discretely parcelled away from all others, but through recognising that whatever “trans issues” are, they are made up of class politics, immigration politics, racial inequality, social-structural sexism, a culture of policing and incarceration, and so on. These are inseparable from each other, and necessarily inform our response to the issues of our time.
It was one of many reasons that I found Moore and Burchill’s claims to be both divisive and fatuous. So many trans people learn the true meaning of solidarity the hard way, and many of us who are feminists and rights activists are part of organisations that—far from being ‘single issue distractions’—are deeply embedded in broader struggles against austerity, sexism, racism, and the ever widening wealth gap in the West; others fight with a tighter focus on neo-colonialism and foreign policy. But we are all immensely concerned with the battle for wider, meaningful liberty, and it is nothing more than a hateful lie to suggest that we are not, simply because we have the audacity to defend ourselves when attacked so viciously by name.